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Faculty Insights

Whether Trial by Fire or Priceless Opportunity, WSB Study Highlights Value of Accounting Interns’ ‘Lived Experience’

By Wisconsin School of Business

January 13, 2022

graphic of male student holding laptop with economic and mathematic designs in background

Accounting is not the only profession that uses an apprentice-based model of learning; many fields— such as medicine and law—understand the value of learning by doing and mastering skills in a real-world environment through the student internship experience.

But pervasive shifts have buffeted the accounting profession over the last four decades, resulting in labor market tensions and interns’ unabashed willingness to challenge previously held norms. Within this changing reality, accounting firms engage in intense competition to ensure a robust talent pipeline, and interns engage in sometimes sophisticated cost-benefit calculations about what firms offer and expect, and what they as employees must endure to obtain a coveted line item on their résumés.

A recent study by Mark A. Covaleski, the Richard J. Johnson Chair of the Department of Accounting and Information Systems and the Robert Beyer Professor in Accounting, and Karla M. Zehms, the Ernst & Young Professor in Accounting and the associate dean of research and PhD programs, both of the Wisconsin School of Business, examines the lived reality of public accounting interns within firms, as well as the perceived costs and benefits.

headshot of Karla Zehms
WSB’s Karla M. Zehms

Along with co-author Professor Christine Early of Providence College, the study suggests evidence of four primary formative experiences for interns: ethical dilemmas, pressures to conform and perceptions of fairness (or lack thereof), gender challenges for female interns, and unpleasant reality shocks.

Our evidence shows that benefits include knowledge acquisition for interns and readily available labor for firms,” Zehms says. “Costs include ethical dilemmas, pressures to conform, reality shocks, and shared suffering for interns, along with training investments and turnover for firms.”

Study context and parameters

Zehms says the study provides details on a replicable internship model that has been sustainable for over 20 years at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and represents a detailed example relevant to understanding the apprenticeship model of public accounting. The socialization process—the journey of student to intern to professional—begins with Wisconsin’s unique Masters of Accountancy (MAcc) program. A faculty subcommittee interviews every applicant and qualifies students for conditional acceptance, pending Graduate School admissions procedures and a successful ‘match’ with a participating internship firm. The result of this process is that the internship is set up to succeed in terms of careful planning, screening, and mutual assessments of intern-firm fit.

For the study, Zehms and her co-authers collected survey evidence from 257 students who completed a ‘busy-season’ internship in the semester immediately prior to starting the MAcc program (January-April of 2014, 2015, and 2016). After reflecting on insights from that evidence, they then interviewed another 30 MAcc students who had returned from their internships following the busy season of 2017 to gain in-depth qualitative evidence about the ‘lived reality’ of the internship experience, focusing on insights about anticipatory socialization, formative experiences and assimilation, along with differential expressions of both success and painful instances of failure.

Below are takeaways from the study as well as excerpts from intern-survey feedback:

Encountering ethical dilemmas

Many interns view the internship as their first time engaging in real work and assimilating as professionals. For some, these formative experiences involve responding to ethical dilemmas, the most common of which include time and expense reporting, client confidentiality, and matters of work quality.

Interns commonly report that the choice to compromise work quality is the result of ‘a wink and a nudge’ by a supervisor: “I was performing an analytical procedure and the difference was greater than the acceptable difference and I was told to make it work;” “my supervisor said I should cut a corner on a certain workstep because it didn’t really matter;” “I was asked to selectively choose another sample.”

It is through these experiences that interns are normatively developing their professionalism by engaging in the real world as opposed to learning about ethical codes of conduct via the classroom. While some admit to acquiescing to the pressures they faced, others use the opportunity to define a different path: “I could have ignored the error, but I reported it to my supervisor … We cannot only make sure everything passes management’s review. We must be true to ourselves …”

Addressing gender-related challenges

Only female interns expressed gender-related concerns; the male interns did not appear to encounter or take notice of gender-related concerns. Female interns’ most notable coping strategy includes envisioning a potentially successful pathway that a role model inspires. As one intern stated:

“My relationship partner … has two young daughters … and she’s just so knowledgeable. It was inspiring to see that she can still have a family, and have a life, and be a partner.” Some of the female interns are uncomfortable in predominately male teams: “nine [members] of the [team] were white males … it stopped me from becoming super comfortable and familiar with them, especially if they were talking about sports.”

Another intern expressed how she purposefully worked to break ‘into the men’s circle:’

“The partner invited me … to go to their big client … So I got to sit in, and we took a break … It was a chemical company, so it was mostly men. I … was coming back [from the break] and the partner was out there with … a little men’s circle. I think they were talking about football, and I walked [past] and I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ So, I just walked back into the conference room and I was standing there by myself… I sat there on my phone for a minute, and I was like, you know what? I need to go back out there and introduce myself … I can either sit here on my phone, and they’ll come back in, and we’ll continue the meeting, and no one will notice or say anything, or I can just go out there … So, I made my way into the little circle, and I was like, ‘Hi!’”

Zehms says that she and her co-authors were struck by these expressions of inspiration and confidence, demonstrated by thoughts and actions despite facing obstacles in a historically male-dominated profession in which women find themselves isolated, hitting an unexpected glass ceiling. While this ceiling may persist, she says, it seems that at least some young women are savvy enough to recognize it and confident enough to take positive actions in an attempt to breach the barrier.

Surviving unpleasant reality shocks

Interns report interesting contradictions in which some elements of stress are unintentionally self-imposed, thereby leading to unpleasant reality shocks. Interns are excited to apply their knowledge, but they express a contradictory expectation to be assigned basic tasks, which, ironically, they worry will be mundane. At the same time, they desire that work be meaningful and challenging, but express a contradictory desire that the work should not be so challenging that they make mistakes or seem unprofessional.

Many interns opt for an office in a larger city as a chance to explore, and while acknowledging that work hours will be consuming, they fail to recognize how little time will be left for exploration. Interns selecting the audit line of service often express a desire for client and location variety, yet fail to anticipate the realities of commuting, traveling, and hotel living.

Coping through shared suffering

Zehms and her co-authors foundthat a comradeship of shared suffering within the team is a particularly notable coping mechanism, e.g., “… we were ‘all in this together.’” Working toward team cohesiveness seems to be an important component of mitigating shared suffering. This cohesiveness is achieved by way of a respectful team hierarchy, helpful colleagues, a personal interest in others, and a positive team dynamic.

In addition to shared suffering, another coping strategy is a deep sense of satisfaction from work; nearly all interns felt that it was meaningful and that it added value to the collective team: “I felt that the work I was doing was actually making a contribution to the audit. I felt that I was a part of something that was having a larger impact.”

The occasional internship failure

The vast majority of interns report a tremendously positive internship experience. A minority, however, express that the internship was a difficult and frustrating transition, fraught with stress, negativity, and sometimes crushing disappointment:

“The hours towards the end (i.e., Monday to Monday around 85-90 hours) [were awful]. I guess I am glad to have done it now, but it just doesn’t fit my personality.”

“I selected audit probably for the wrong reasons. I picked it because I like to travel and everyone else picked it. By the end of the internship I still did not understand the purpose of many audit procedures or how to perform them. In retrospect, I might have enjoyed something else more.”

For one intern, the end of the internship couldn’t come soon enough. Clearly distraught during the interview, (i.e., sobbing and shaking) she recalled becoming an outcast, spending the majority of her internship unassigned, which caused her to feel worthless. On the rare occasion that she did have work, she reported to an abusive boss:

“I feel like she would maybe be having a bad day and would take it out on me… She was just cruel … the things that she would say, I was just shocked … And it was like, ‘It almost seems like you are trying to make me leave … walk out the door’. It was just so mean, that [it] said to me: ‘You hate me.’”

During the debriefing, the respondent reflected on how deeply the verbal abuse affected her ability to trust, shattering the ‘fairytale’ image painted by faculty and firm recruiters. 

Conclusion: Identifying as professionals

Zehms says the research provides detailed qualitative evidence through open-ended surveys and in-depth interviews, revealing how interns begin identifying as professionals while completing their internship, embarking on graduate school, and preparing to enter the full-time labor market. The interns unabashedly communicated their experiences with Zehms and her co-authors, freely exchanging information and earnestly engaging in self-reflection. They are not shy about ‘testing the waters’ by selecting internship opportunities that they consider novel or differentiating, either in terms of line-of-service or geographic location.

Zehms says the interns are “thirsty for exploration, eagerly anticipating and reflecting upon their formative experiences during the internship and providing insights that help us, as researchers, make inferences about their assimilation process.” Of the four primary formative experiences her team reports—ethical dilemmas, pressures to conform and perceptions of fairness (or lack thereof), gender challenges for female interns, and unpleasant reality shocks—Zehms says that the most notable coping mechanisms that accompany these experiences include embracing a sense of shared suffering with the team, along with team cohesion, satisfaction with the work itself, and the helpful use of a positive attitude in overcoming obstacles.

“In terms of expressing success versus failure, the successes that these interns report are relatively consistent—including accomplishing challenging work with people they like and with whom they identify,” Zehms says.

Read the paper: “The Lived Reality of Public Accounting Interns” published in Journal of Accounting Education